Subverting Rationality (Part 1)

Written over 2 days after my philosophy group called Symposium, met to discuss myth and objective rationalism. This is a short 700 essay that attempts to buttress my claim that the only thing(s) real are that which is most meaningful, as opposed to that which is objectively demonstrable through empiricism.


One of the most important foundational questions to our existence is this: How should we best construe the world if we are to determine how to act properly within it? The world in which we live can either be construed as a forum for meaningful action, or a place of objective things. The former finds its place in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, and literature and mythology. In this construal, meaning is shaped by our social interactions which produces a guide to action. The latter manner is a world of things and finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. In this construal science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validated properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools.

These binary construal’s – one aimed at meaning and the other aimed at reality as it ‘is’ – ought to prompt us to ask another foundational question: How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon Pre-Enlightenment nonsense? I frame the question this way because modernity has a way of elevating today’s (post-experimental) objective rationalism over-and-above (pre-experimental) mythos of meaningful action. However, if a culture grows and survives, does it not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? It myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?

We have made the great mistake that the “world of spirit” described by those who preceded us was the modern “world of matter,” primitively conceptualized. That is not true – at least in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science – but that does not mean it was not real. We have not yet found God above, nor the devil below, because we do not yet understand where “above” and “below” might be found.


Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is qualitatively different phenomena. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique for shared affective valance, their value, their motivational significance.

Much of the clash between mythos and objective rationalism is that the modern notion reduces ‘true’ and ‘real’ to that which can only be demonstrated empirically while completely stripping the affect of every encounter we experience. But let’s take the ancient Sumerians as an example. The “world” of the ancient Sumerians was not objective reality as we presently construe it. The Sumerians were concerned, above all, with how to act (were concerned with the value of things). Their descriptions of reality (to which we attribute the qualities of proto-science) in fact comprised their summary of the world as phenomenon – as place to act. They did not “know” this – not explicitly – any more then we do. But it was still true.

The ancient Sumerians faced the same challenge as we do today: How do we live with purposeful meaning? This is the fundamental drive for human beings. We wake up in the morning and begin moving towards some-thing, meaning. Meaning means implication for behavioral output. Therefore, there are three excruciatingly important questions that guide our being, and they are: (1) What is? (2) What should be? and (3) How should we therefore act?


Objective rationalism is silent and utterly impotent to these questions. Not even analyzing brain states can tell us why any meaningful experiences even matter. To the contrary, we are all moved by a goal that resides in an imaginary state – in fantasy – as something (potentially) preferable to the present. We then tweak how we act within the world so as to one day obtain the idealized future we have in our head. What I am describing is a forum for action; it’s what every myth is based upon. No, it’s not ‘true’ or ‘real’ in the modern sense, but the affect on us is absolutely true, and real.


Why Do People Believe in Gods

Written over two days and finished at Starbucks in Palo Alto. Inspired by recent readings of Andy Thomson, Michael Shermer and a lengthy discussion involving a group of friends. Finished with Bassnector (EDM) blasting in my ears, and a double espresso.

kjblLet’s face it, belief in a god will never go away. A Pew study (2014) found that 89% of Americans believe in a “God or a universal spirit.” Islam is the fastest growing religion and if the current demographic trends continue, the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century. Despite the Enlightenment and scientific progress, people keep gravitating to a god or gods. Why is this? Many of us know of very smart individuals – doctors, engineers and scientists – who, despite their quest for empirical truth, nevertheless give their faith to a higher being. But I’m not interested in ‘why do smart people believe?’, rather, ‘why do people believe at all?’

 I consider myself to be a rational person. I value logic and the scientific method. Even though I don’t believe in a higher being, I admit I sometimes feel like there is Something Else. Last week serves as an illustration of several experiences that initiated an urge to cross the line into another realm. First, I voiced to a group of Christians that I had been having difficulty sleeping and they added my insomnia to their prayer requests. Well, wouldn’t you know that the next four nights I had eight hours of sleep each night! Second, last Thursday I had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. At one point, I found myself looking up and feeling that Something Else – up in the sky – was trying to send me a message. The ‘message’ was saying: “Wes, slow down and relax.” The last example occurred this past Friday when I was climbing a five-mile hill on my bike. Around 20 minutes into the ride I began feeling very fatigued and was fading fast. But then I rounded a switchback and came across the most spectacular view of San Jose that gave me this feeling of transcendence. Just then, it felt like a hand (or force) began pushing me up the mountain. I spent the next 17 minutes climbing ferociously with a vigor that I have not felt before.

As I look back, I can’t resist asking myself, “was that God intervening in my life?” I am completely open to the transcendence (or God) in my life, but I want to keep reason at the forefront. I could, perhaps, conclude that prayers were answered and that God cured me of insomnia. But was that an answered prayer or a coincidence? It appears that prayers were answered if one simply connects the dots. But what about the billions of prayers that go unanswered where the dots don’t connect? Theists are masters at connecting the dots, such that, God is always in the dots. To the theist, the word “coincidence” is anathema, given that God is always in the details. However, maybe Satan cured me of my insomnia, or Buddha – no one can tell which god is answering prayers. The same holds true of my visceral feeling that there was a force teaching me a lesson during my day of Hell as well as a force giving me energy to conquer a mountain. It’s easy to misjudge a biochemical boost of adrenaline for a euphoric cosmic force that desires for me to get up the mountain. In essence, natural explanations are just not that appealing. It feels like there is Something More. Maybe Satan or nothingness is controlling the strings of the universe. Either way, no one can know or prove it.

The question is still out there: why do people believe in Gods? Here is my argument for why we connect the dots that lead us to a belief in a Gods.

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

ConclusionPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.

 Going Deeper: Unpacking My Argument


P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

iuhoiAll religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain. And more than just belief, the brain yields the agony, the ecstasy, the confusion, the disappointment, and every other mental state that makes us human. Each brain harbors memories, creativity, and, maybe, some madness. It is the brain that catches the ball, scores the goal, flirts with strangers, or decides to invade Poland (The Illusion of Self, Bruce Hood). We in fact are our brain! Packed in our lump of tissue we call the brain is an estimated 170 billion cells and 86 o 100 billion neurons – the elements of the microcircuitry that create all of our mental life. The solidarity felt in joining Isis or the felt transcendence of praying hail Mary’s involve sensory neurons that respond to information picked from the environment through one’s senses. Motor neurons relay information that controls our movement outputs. And finally, the interneurons make all the clever stuff happen to the point that one says, “I believe!”. But is there a neurotransmitter for belief?

Of all the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, it appears that dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. Dopamine is a neural transmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism “Do that again.” Dopamine produces the sensation of pleasure that accompanies mastering a task or accomplishing a goal, which makes the organism want to repeat the behavior, whether it is pressing a bar, pulling a slot machine lever, or praying to Allah five times a day. You get a hit (a reinforcement) and your brain get a hits of dopamine. Behavior – Reinforcement – Behavior. Repeat sequence (The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer).

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.  – Charles Darwin

My second premise rests on five key arguments. (1) The claim that the cognitive mechanisms that are underlying our behavior are adaptations. (2) The idea that they cannot be studied directly, for example, through observation of the brain or our overt behavior, but have to be discovered by means of a method known as “functional analysis,” where one starts with hypotheses about the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, and then tries to infer the cognitive adaptations that must have evolved to solve them. (3) The claim that these cognitive mechanisms are adaptations not for solving problems prevalent in our modern environment, but for solving recurrent adaptive problems in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors. (4) The idea that our mind is a complex set of such cognitive mechanisms, or domain-specific modules. (5) The claim that these modules define who we are, in the sense that they define our universal human nature and ultimately trump any individual, cultural or societal differences.

Adaptations are traits present today because in the past they helped our ancestors to solve recurrent adaptive problems. The field of evolutionary psychology helps us understand those adaptations that have evolved in response to characteristically human adaptive problems that have shaped our ancestors’ lifestyle as hunter-gatherers during our evolutionary past in the Pleistocene (Ice Age), like choosing and securing a mate, recognizing emotional expressions, acquiring a language, distinguishing kin from non-kin, detecting cheaters or remembering the location of edible plants.

Homo erectus had to overcome a lot in order to go from small bands and tribes of people all the way up to states and empires. Homo erectus left Africa about 1.5-2 million years ago and conquered half the world, process that was essentially finished around 1 million years ago. Because of that, the most challenging part of the environment that drove our own evolution was probably the hominids themselves, and this is the origin of our complex social cognitions (Andy Thomson). This is important because religious ideas are just an extraordinary use of everyday cognitions, such as social cognitions, agency detection and precautionary reasoning. Religious ideas are the by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. There are other such by-products, such as reading and writing. We do not have reading/writing modules in our brain. They are a by-product of fine motor skills, vision, and language. Religious ideas are, thus, an artifact of our ability for imagined social worlds.

Through natural selection, human beings adapted social cognitions that primed man for religious belief. These adaptive social cognitions include, but are not limited to:

Theory of Mind (ToM)

While ‘minds’ are not directly observable things, we tend to think a lot about them, forming theories about beliefs, values, motivations, thought processes and so on. When we are interacting with others or thinking about them, we make guesses at what they are thinking and feeling. This is our ‘theory of mind’ about them (sometimes abbreviated to ‘ToM’). We even do the same to ourselves, stepping back and watching ourselves think and feel as we try to work out who we really are. In particular, we predict the intent of others, which helps us decide whether they are a threat or otherwise we should pre-emptively respond to their likely actions.

gIt is precisely the act of intentionality that moves us closer to understanding religious belief. As a preliminary example, everyone has a separate dedicated system that monitors eye gaze. We can make such complex discriminations concerning emotional states through pictures of solely eyes, and discern 212 complicated emotional states. Just from someone’s eye gaze! Ascribing intentionality comes very natural to humans.

Another way to understand ToM is our ability not only to ascribe intentionality, but also ascribe beliefs and desires. We can of it in the different order we think, for instance:

First Order: “I think”

Second Order: “I think, that you think”

Third Order: “I think, that you think, that I think”

Fourth Order: “I think, that you think, that I think, that you think”

This is an example of how deep and complicated we can get when processing emotional states. The ability to assign beliefs, intentions and desires primes us for religious beliefs. Here is an example:

First Order: “I believe”

Second Order: “I believe, that God wants”

Third Order: “I believe, that God wants, us to act with righteous intent”

Fourth Order: “I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (social religion)

Another kind of fourth order: “I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (communal)

Religions utilize this cognitive adaptation that is crucial to our social interaction. We are only one cognitive step away from ascribing characteristics to a deity. We do these kinds of mental games with inanimate objects all the time: possessions for deceased loved ones, treasured items, and also ascribing human characteristics to deceased loved ones as we imagine them looking down on us desiring actual outcomes for us.


jjjjjReligious people have mastered patternicity to find causal links leading all the way up to God. Patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Patternicity explains why people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news. A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”). In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe, he argues that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes ‘A’ really is connected to ‘B’; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

According to Shermer, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution. Nevertheless, this helps us understand how the theist can ‘connect the dots to answered prayers, God’s will, and many other examples that have no obvious empirical justification.

(HADD) Hyper-Active Agency Detection Devices

Agenticity is the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. Another term, essentialism, means to infuse essence upon a person or thing. A fascinating study was conducted by Bruce Hood, in which, 24 healthy adults were first asked to rate the faces of 20 people for attractiveness, intelligence, and how willing they would be to receive a heart transplant from each person. After these ratings were recorded, Hood told the subjects that half of the people they had just rated were convicted murderers, then he asked them to re-rate the pictures. Tellingly, although the ratings of the murderers’ attractiveness and intelligence dropped, the biggest drop of all was in the willingness to accept a heart from a murderer, which Hood concluded was due to the fear that some of the essence of evil might be transmitted to the recipient. This study corroborates the study that also reveals that most people would never wear a sweater of a murderer. By contrast, in a form of positive agency, most people would wear the sweater of Mr. Rogers.

It might help if I give some real-world examples of agenticity. Better yet, I’ll combine both patternicity and agenticity to illustrate how they work together. A clear example is when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana. Many Christians and their leaders (e.g. Pat Robertson) drew from both patternicity and agenticity. Here is an example:

Patternicity: There are a lot of homosexuals living in the city where there was just a hurricane; this can’t be a coincidence!
Agenticity: The God that I believe in strongly opposes homosexuality; he may have sent this hurricane to warn us to repent and turn from our wicked ways!

Let’s move on to a much more controversial example; answers to prayer.  Are they real?  Let’s break down the logic again:

Patternicity: I prayed about something that was worrying me last night and my situation improved today (this can’t be a coincidence)!
Agenticity: My God answers prayers, because he loves me!  Prayer works!

First off, the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Christians tend to pray most fervently when they are feeling precisely this way (ie. stressed about something).  This means they’re perfectly primed, ahead of time, to find what they’re already looking for and expecting in faith (plus they count only the hits; ignoring the misses).  And here again there is no way to prove, in any sort of absolute sense, that these two items are not indeed connected (the prayer and the improvement in the situation at hand).

My argument is this: we are natural born supernaturalist, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. One of the leading experts, Stewart Guthrie, argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment that might not actually exist. Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; in other words, people can be said to possess hyperactive agent detection devices (HADD). According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there.

The idea that religious belief is to a large extent the result of mental adaptations for agency detection has been endorsed by several leading evolutionary theorists of religion (Guthrie 1993; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2005). Broadly, these theorists suggest that there are specialized mental mechanisms for the detection of agency behind significant events. These have evolved because the detection of agency – “who did that and why?” – has been a critical task facing human beings throughout their evolution. These mechanisms are “hyperactive,” leading us to attribute natural events to a hidden agent or agents.

Promiscuous Teleology

According to the theory of ‘promiscuous teleology’, statements such as “clouds are for raining” reflect a deep-rooted belief that natural kinds are intentionally designed for a purpose. While such reasoning is appropriate for certain domains (e.g., artifacts), it is considered promiscuous when extended to natural kinds because it implies “agentive and intentional conceptualizations of Nature” where physical-causal mechanistic explanations would be superior (Waxman, S.R.).

Some of these vulnerabilities are seen most clearly in children, who, from a very early age, are ‘Common sense dualists’. This means that when, for example, you present a box to a five-month-old and make it move like a person, the five-month-old will be startled. He will not be startled when a person behaves the same way. Children come into the world with these systems in place; this is not learned behavior. It is natural, from very early on, to think of disembodied minds. Half of four-year-olds have imaginary friends. Children are causal determinists. This means that they will over-read causality and purpose:

“What are birds for? To sing.”

“What are rivers for? For boats to float on.”

“What are rocks for? For animals, to scratch themselves.”

It is very easy for us to imagine intentional agents that are separate from ourselves. Children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. The mechanisms that we are born with make us very vulnerable to religious ideas. Religion is the path of least resistance. It is cognitively harder and it requires more effort to understand concepts such as natural selection.

Filling In The Gaps: Kanizsa Square

An off-shoot of the promiscuous teleology in children, is intuitive reasoning that adults rely on to fill in the spaces where a void appears. Quite honestly, we will ‘make sense’ when ‘no sense’ appears. An interesting study in 1944 conducted by Fritz Heider and Mary Ann Simmel highlights this thought. Featured in the American Journal of Psychology, they put together a simplistic animated film depicting three moving, black-and-white figures: a large triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. Participants watched the figures moving about the screen for a while and then were asked to describe what they had just seen. Most reported using a human social narrative – for example, seeing the large triangle as “bullying” the “timid” smaller triangle, both of “whom” were “seeking” the “affections” of the “female” circle. What was once just moving shapes is now infused with anthropomorphic meaning and purpose.

This type of intuitive reasoning is also found with a kanizsa square. In the Kanizsa Triangle Illusion we readily perceive three black circles and two triangles, even though there are technically no circles or triangles in the image. We see something more. We actually perceive objects that are not really there.

kansza square

When we see gaps, we naturally fill them in; even if it requires the supernatural. In the Kanizsa square, we ignore gaps and we complete contour lines to form familiar figures and shapes. Religious belief does this all the time. Consider the gaps between something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the question “Why did this happen?” The theist quickly fills the gap with some divine intention from up above. Even if one’s prayers continue to go unanswered, we fill in the gap with, “Well, God knows what is best for me.”

Other adaptive mechanisms and a brief explanation(taken from a talk done by Andy Thomson):

The attachment mechanism

The attachment mechanism in humans was laid out by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. This is the fundamental care taking system in mammals. This is what happens in religion: when someone is in distress, he or she turns to a caretaker, an attachment figure.


This is a concept discovered by Freud, the fact that we base current relationships on previous ones. This is also hijacked by religion, especially parental transferences.

Childhood credulity

A concept strongly advocated by Richard Dawkins. Natural selection designed our brains to soak up the culture around them. A child cannot tell the difference between good advice, such as ‘don’t swim with alligators’ and bad advice, such as ‘sacrifice a pig for the new harvest’.

Deference to authority

All of us are far more deferential to authority than we like to believe. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments showed that we will, under pressure of some authority, do things that we know on some other level we should not do.

Reciprocal altruism

All of us keep in our heads an account of what we owe to some people, and what we are owed. Religions utilize this: make a sacrifice, receive something in return.
Moral feelings system

All of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1. It is very hard for us to know the origins of this, and this is what religions hijack by claiming it comes from them. They recruit these systems to lend plausibility to gods, to link commitment and solidarity mechanisms, and to add a morally competent witness to our actions.

This is a useful way to think about the difference between genuine morality and religious morality:

Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told.

Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right.

Altruistic punishment

We are willing to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves. It is crucial to social interaction. Suicide terrorism is just one step further.

Hard to fake, costly honest signals of commitment

We are shown a few examples of this. All religions utilize this. Suicide terrorism is also a hard to fake signal of commitment. This is also connected to religious rituals.

Religious rituals

Religious rituals tap into our threat response system. They are compelling and rigidly scripted, and have usually to do with cleansing and order. Religious rituals enable and elicit scrutiny of hard to fake signals of commitment. They communicate intentions, and they are used to inculcate doctrines and to forge alliances. Rituals are also used to create hope and solace, to excite and entertain.

Religious rituals are also divorced from the original goal of protection; they delimit sacred spaces and the exploit the Gestalt Law of the Whole. In order to illustrate what this means, Andy Thomson shows us a V-formation of flying birds. We tend not to see the birds in these formations, but rather the V-shape itself. Religions exploit this by creating attention arresting and often intimidating spectacles.

muslims praying

There is also motivated reasoning (we doubt what we don’t like), confirmation bias (we notice data that fits our beliefs), and mere familiarity.

Kin psychology

All of us have mechanisms to identify and favour kin. Religions hijack this. Just look at the Catholic Church: priests are brothers, nuns are sisters, and the pope is the Holy Father.

This is only a modest list, and not a complete list of all the cognitive mechanisms that come together to create religious beliefs and ideas and that make us vulnerable to believing them and passing them on.

Although we experience consciousness as a seamless whole, it is really built from very specific parts.

;kjn;P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

Religion capitalizes on superstition and takes it a bit further. The theist finds psychological comfort in a God who listens during desperate times; a God who provides meaning and purpose, and victory over death through an afterlife that claims eternal peace and goodness. Do you see it? For the existential threats in life, we conjure up magical thinking to dampen the dread of life. For many people, not having control over an outcome is a frightening proposition. The more important these uncontrollable situations are, the more likely you’ll try to dream up ways to control their outcome even though it may be unrealistic.

Have you ever wondered why there has been a continual decline in magical thinking from Biblical days to today? The Bible has people raised form the dead, people coming out of their graves and walking around like zombies, miraculous healings, and multiplying food to feed five-thousand people. Fast forward to medieval times where almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, and black magic. If a noble women died, her servants ran around the house emptying all containers of water so her soul would not drown. Her lord, in response to her death, faced east and formed a cross by lying prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched. If the left eye of a corpse did not close properly, the soul would spend extra time in purgatory (leading to the ritual of closing the eyes upon death). Perhaps magical thinking helps us gain control in cases where we feel helpless.

lllnFor the medieval mind, magical-thinking provided an understanding of how the world worked: It attenuated anxiety and allowed people to shed personal responsibility by blaming events on bad luck, evil spirits, mischievous fairies, or God’s will, and permitted one to cast blame on others through curses and witchcraft. Astrology, the most popular science of the day, invoked the alignment of the stars and plants to explain all manner of human and natural phenomena, the past, the present, and future, and life’s vagaries from daily events to yearly cycles. Only religion could rival astrology as an all-embracing explanation for the vicissitudes of life.

By the end of the seventh-teeth century Newton’s mechanical astronomy had replaced astrology; the mathematical understanding of chance and probability displaced luck and fortune; chemistry succeeded alchemy; banking and insurance decreased human misfortune and its attendant anxiety; city planning and social hygiene greatly attenuated the power of plagues; and medicine began its long road toward a germ theory of disease. Cumulatively, these events pushed us into the Age of Science, reducing the number of thinking errors and attenuating the power of superstition. Nevertheless, magical thinking is still with us, rearing its head wherever uncertainties arise.

Wade Boggs was famous for his superstitions, insisting on running his wind sprints at precisely 7:17pm, ending his grounder drill by stepping on the foul line when taking the field but always stepping on it returning to the dugout, and eating chicken before every game. It is worth noting, however, that such superstitions are not all uncommon among hitters where connecting with the baseball is so difficult and so fraught with uncertainties that the very best in the business fail a full seven out every ten times at bat. Fielders by contrast succeed in excess of nine out every ten times a ball is hit to them (the best success better than 95 percent of the time), and they have correspondingly fewer superstitions associated with fielding. But as soon as these same fielders pick up a bat, magical thinking goes into full swing.

One of the key studies in this area was conducted by Bronislaw Malinowski when studying the Trobriand Islanders located in the archipelago of Papua New Guinea. When studying their fishing practices, what Malinowski discovered was that the farther out to sea the islanders went, the more complex the superstitious rituals became. In the calm waters in the inner lagoon, there were very few rituals. By the time they reached the dangerous waters of deep-sea fishing, the Trobrianders were deep into magic. Malinowski discovered that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.


meaningPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.


Meaning and Purpose: Pre-Determined or Self-Created

Finished at Los Gatos Starbucks with EDM (Bassnector) on Pandora and a coffee I killed with lots of cream and sugar. This essay was inspired after reading Terry Eagleton’s book on Meaning and Purpose and Julian Baggini book called ‘What It’s All About’.

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears sitting round with really nothing to say while scientists say we’re just simply spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA.’  – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The worry many people have is that if the naturalist account is true, then life can only be a meaningless accident of nature. If there is any meaning at all, then it only concerns the grander unfolding of the universe’s destiny and human beings are irrelevant. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘The universe may have a purpose, but nothing we know suggests that, if so, this purpose has any similarity to ours.’ Uncharitable readers interpret his words as: life is therefore meaningless and without purpose. This was not his intention, for there is a surmountable difference between purpose of life and a purpose filled-life. We need not confuse the two.

Although there is no purpose of life – and it is wonderful that there is isn’t – you can still have a purpose-filled life. To say there is no purpose of life does not mean there is no purpose in life. Your life has purpose not because it is bestowed by an entity outside yourself but because you bestow it by your own mind. One is bondage, the other is liberty. Purpose is not something you search for. It is not something you find. It is not endowed by a creator or handed to you by your parents or government.

Several questions I will briefly address include:

What crises ensued from the cultural shift from Pre-Enlightenment to Modernity?

Were we created with a predetermined purpose or with no pre-determinant purpose?

Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes?

And we think that only predetermined purposes can make life meaningful?

Is it a logical fallacy to assume that if we have origins in a Creator, it necessitates a pre-determined (current) nature?

The Crisis: From Pre-Modern to Modern

Historians agree en masse that the Enlightenment brought about a kind of crisis for humanity. The ‘discovery’ that there was no God created a sort of existential crises. All of the impenetrable structures previously known were now resting on soggy marsh. We can see this if we compare the twelfth-century philosopher with the twentieth-century philosopher. If you look closely enough, the talk of dread, anxiety and absurdity and the like are characteristic of the human condition a lot more for the twentieth-century philosopher. For the most part, the pre-modern period held God as properly assumed, self-evident, and anathema to question his very existence. With the cultural shift during the Enlightenment, science and reason began to distance itself from God and chart its own course. A telling reference point is when Napoleon read the hypothesis of French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace and asked him, ‘you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator?’ To which Leplace replied, ‘I had no need of that hypothesis.’

Scholar Terry Eagleton expounds on the modernist shift when he says, “What marks the modernist thought from one end to another is the belief that human existence is contingent – that it has no ground, goal, direction, or necessary, and that our species might quite easily have never emerged on the planet. This possibility then hollows out our actual presence, casting across it the perpetual shadow of loss and death.” Even in our most ecstatic moments, we are dimly aware that the ground has a marshy underfoot – that there is no unimpeachable foundation to what we are and what we do. This may make our finest moments even more precarious or it may serve to drastically devalue them.

Jean-Paul Sartre:  Paper Knife vs Flint

The paradigm shift to modernity climaxed with the European existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. For sake of brevity, I will focus solely on several ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre that highlights our discussion.

A key question was thrown to the forefront during modernity: were we created with a predetermined purpose or with no pre-determinant purpose? Sartre explains his response to this question with an analogy of a paper-knife. A paper-knife has a determinate ‘essence’ by virtue of the fact that it was created by someone to fulfill a certain function. In contrast, a sharp object like a flint has no essence, even though it too could be used to cut paper. It just so happens that humans have found a use for it.  Sartre’s point is that we have assumed ourselves to be like paper-knives, not like pieces of flint. We believed that we had some kind of essential nature because God created us with a particular purpose in mind. But if God does not exist and the naturalist story is true, this picture is false. We are like the pieces of flint that just are.

There are two ways of responding to this bleak picture. One is to simply accept that life is therefore meaningless. The other is to question the assumption underpinning the pessimistic conclusion: that we need to be like paper-knives for life to have meaning. What the existentialists did was expose the false assumption that purpose for human beings came from God. For the existentialist, far from leaving life meaningless, this may simply lead us to conclude that the source of life’s meaning is not where we thought.

Uncharitable readers usually label the existentialists such as Sartre as nihilistic or propose that they think life as absolutely devoid of meaning altogether. To the contrary, Sartre (along with Camus, Nietzsche, Heidegger) showed that despite a lack of inherent purpose or inherent meaning to the universe, we can nevertheless create our own purpose and meaning. Far from bleak, the existentialist thought is built on liberating the individual from a totalitarian figure head (i.e. God) and using one’s freedom to maximize one’s potential for the greater whole.

For Sartre, the crucial truth we ought to recognize is that because purpose and meaning is not built into human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning. This requires us to confront our own responsibility for creating meaning for ourselves, something which Sartre believes we would much rather not do. We would prefer to live our lives in ‘bad faith’, pretending that how we live and ought to live are not down to our choice but a product of fate, outside forces or supernatural design.

The views of Sartre sound very liberating and empowering to many, but to others, his views ring hollow. There are two important questions that come to mind at this juncture:

  • Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes?
  • Why think that only predetermined purposes can make life meaningful?

Let us begin with the first question. To answer the question most simply: there is no general principle that purposes are more ‘real’ or important if they are introduced at the design stage. Eagleton points to an appropriate illustration if we consider the Post-it note. The repositionable adhesive that the notes use was discovered by a scientist working for 3M in 1968. However, neither he or anyone else in the company had any idea what possible use such an adhesive could be put to. Six years later, another 3M scientist, tired of losing his place in the hymnal while singing in his church choir, thought how useful a lightly adhesive bookmark would be. He then realized that the apparently useless glue was useful after all. Now Post-it notes are ubiquitous.

The Post-it note might seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates neatly the point that, when it comes to purpose, what matters is not necessarily what the inventor had in mind, but the uses or purposes the innovation actually has. The same logic applies to human beings, given that, what matters is that life has a purpose for us, here and now. Whether our purpose was dreamt up by a Creator or not is irrelevant. Given that we can make decisions that give our life meaning and purpose, in the here and now, shows that there is no obvious reason why this should be considered an inferior kind of meaning.

Moving now to the second question proposed, we ought to consider that predetermined purposes could in fact make life less meaningful. Imagine if you created your own creature, as in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Now let’s say the sole purpose of your creature was to clean your house every day. Surely this life would have less dignity and meaning than the life of a person born into a naturalistic universe? I’d go even further and say that even if the sole purpose of your creature was to worship you (because you decreed it as his creator), this would still result in a less dignified life. Any purpose, when imposed on a sentient being, eliminates any ability for creativity with one’s life. It would be better for this creature to determine his own purposes than simply to fulfill your desires.

There is simply no justified reason for thinking that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes. To the contrary, the freedom and responsibility is with every human to carve out a life in which you are genuinely engaged in worthwhile activities that reflect your autonomous rational choice as an autonomous agent. To state that a predetermined purpose imposed on human beings is justified is to validate an authority (i.e. God) to rule over you as if you were as a slave.

There is, however, a fallacy that insidiously lies beneath the theistic notion that if are origin is found in God, then God is the [M]eaning of meaning and the [P]urpose of purpose. Theists commit the genetic fallacy by confusing the origin of a belief with its justification. The genetic fallacy describes any kind of confusion between an account of origins and an account of something’s current or future nature. Thus, it is logically invalid to assume that because our origin is with God, the nature of our current relationship is one with a predetermined purpose.

Julian Baggini points out that an obvious example of this fallacy is to think that the etymology of a word always provides vital insight into how it is now used. For instance, consider the origin of the word ‘digit’. It derives from the Latin dicere, which means to tell, say or point out. This gave rise to the meaning of a finger or thumb; and because these were used for counting, it also came to mean a numerical figure. This is all very interesting, but if you want to know what is meant when someone talks about a ‘three-digit figure’ your understanding is not best helped by considering the origins of the word ‘digit’. Indeed, if you think too much about origins you might be misled. With this in mind, here is my point: we cannot justify our current state of nature by harkening back to the beginning of time with a belief in a Creator.

Let’s use an analogy to make this point clear. Consider again the case of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Unlike us, Frankenstein’s monster was able to discover why he was made and for what purpose. He chanced upon the journal Frankenstein kept in the four months leading to his creation. His initial reaction to reading it was rage and despair. ‘Accursed creator!’ he screamed. ‘Why did you form me as a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?’

But these revelations did not have any lasting effect. In many ways, he was in the same position after he discovered the truth about his origins as he was before: he was still an outcast, feared by humans yet longing for their company and affection. Nothing in his revelations about his creation helped or hindered him in his struggle to cope with these facts. Shelly was right to show that knowledge of the creature’s origins did not reveal his life’s meaning, for there is no reason why looking to the past will inform us about our present state and future prospects. When we think about the origins and purpose of life, a similar kind of genetic fallacy can be committed. The mistake is to think that understanding tells us its end goal or present purpose. But the one does not necessarily follow from the other.

Concluding Thought

We tend to look at the ‘meaning-of-life’ dilemma like the ‘fountain-of-youth’ quest. It’s out there, and once we find it, we will be satisfied. But there is no end-point or final answer to the meaning-of-life question. Meaning is not a destination, rather, it is something people do and engage in; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and they must respect this world’s grain and texture. To recognize this is to cultivate a certain humility. I like John Cottingham’s words mentioned earlier in which he says a meaningful life as ‘one in which the individual is engaged … in genuinely worthwhile activities that reflect his or her autonomous rational choice as an autonomous agent.’

We need to accept that it’s alright that we are flint rather than paper knives. Sartre gave us the word ‘facticity’ which means an acceptance of the way the world is whether we like it or not. We need to recognize the fragility of good fortune and the impermanence of things. But do we have the courage and honesty to take life for what it is and make the most of it? Or do we fear that if we do so it will prove to be a disappointment?

-Wes Fornes

Finding the Meaning of Life in Albert Camus’ “The Plague”



I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social.

Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is

gentle: to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane

times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created,

where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy

die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe,

and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.   – (Atheist) Bertrand Russell

Summary: The Plague by Albert Camus

In the small town of Oran, Algeria, dead bodies are multiplying exponentially. A strange virus has penetrated the town walls; it is causing people’s flesh to boil, their inside to curdle with fever and vomit. There seems to be no hope for a cure. Terror has taken over.

One doctor, a darkly handsome man named Rieux, may be the last hope the people of Oran have – or he may simply have lost his mind, He is working tirelessly to treat the victims. He not only puts himself in contact with the deadly contagion, he does so methodically, with tremendous energy and unflinching dedication.

Admirable: but why? Rieux, openly an Atheist, is confident he will receive no reward for selflessness after he dies. Furthermore, he reflects, even if he should succeed in curing the plague against all odds, all his patients and he himself will eventually perish. There will be no resurrection. All is temporary.

The doctor’s beloved wife, meanwhile, is stranded in a sanatorium a hundred miles away. Oran is under strict quarantine. Perhaps his strange dedication to his patients stems from the faint hope that if he cures them all, he can be reunited with her? No – if this were all there were to it, he would not help his friend Rambert the way he does. Rambert, a journalist, had recently come to Oran for a visit when the plague erupted, and its quarantine has trapped him there. With suffering and death all around him, Rambert can think of little but escaping to reunite with his own young bride, in Paris. He is self-righteous in his longing to break free. He is not a citizen of the town, just an accidental victim of fate. He deserves to get out, and he is willing to break the law and put others at risk to achieve it.

Obviously Rambert misses the point. Unless the plague is some purposeful, vengeful work of God – and the thoughtful, skeptical journalist is hardly the kind to believe such fairy tales – the residents of Oran, screaming and dying all around him, are no less accidental victims than a tourist such as he. We are all accidental victims.

Still, the doctor does not resent Rambert’s choice of selfish love over selfless service. The doctor does not attempt to persuade his friend to stay, despite the desperate need for more help in the “sanitary corps” that Rieux is organizing. Rieux encourages Rambert to follow his own heart. If the doctor were working for others only out of raw, calculated self-interest, surely he would calculate the need for Rambert’s participation and be no less understanding. Instead, Rieux simply persists in an endeavor that cannot but inspire us despite describing his own struggle as “a never ending defeat.”

The philosopher Albert Camus’s novel The Plague dramatizes one of the most foundational and challenging questions for umanism. We must explain why we should be good, without God. This is the question we can hear the character Jean Tarrou, a little bit later admiring and a little bit ashamed, asking his friend Rieux: “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God?”

My Thoughts

How are we to live our lives? We allow ourselves into the vacuum of ideals, conventions, and authoritarians who tell us how to think. In doing so, we join a herd and allow the blind to lead us. Rieux states that the spirit of pre-plague Oran is one of empty commercialism. The lives of Oran’s people are entirely circumscribed by their habits. Every day, they follow the same routines not realizing that on the other side lays a plague that will call on them to make sense of the world. So will you make sense of it? Or will you act as if the plague won’t happen to you?

What we learn from the plague is that we are all in the same boat. No one can escape the pain, guilt, suffering, and despair that life brings. The plague doesn’t show special grace to the wealthy, educated, or elite. Dr. Rieux thinks it is unimaginable that a city with harmless people like Grand could be subject to a deadly plague epidemic. However, there is no rational or moral meaning behind a plague epidemic. Its choice of victims is completely impartial – there is no rational or moral reason why people like Grand should or should not die from the plague. During one encounter, Rieux gets rocked when he meets a 9 year old boy stricken by the plague. But even with his whole life ahead filled with such potential and virtue, this young boy cannot escape being a victim. He didn’t ask for it. We are all accidental victims. We don’t determine the country we are born in, our socio-economic class, or the competency level of our parents.

The question arises: who takes responsibility – given that we are all victims? We individually should take responsibility. But in Oran, responsibility is passed on. Just as with the rats in Oran, everyone considers it someone else’s responsibility to deal with the mysterious illness. The government officials and Dr. Rieux’s colleagues do not want to break with the status quo, so they waste time discussing whether the disease is definitely contagious and whether it is definitely the bubonic plague. Dr. Rieux’s stance is that they should act as if the disease were the bubonic plague. He does not relish the idea of waiting for new cases to prove his suspicions. His main concern is saving as many lives as possible.

People seem so surprised when they become victims. Dr. Rieux notes that wars and plagues have always existed in human populations, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other. Maybe it’s because we rely on our accomplishments or status in life to safeguard us from harm. Like fools, we put a dash of solipsism and a dollop of wishful thinking into our worldview and assume a position of self-entitlement and say, “I’ll be okay, I’ve got God on my side.” What does that even mean? With or without God, God still stands above humanity watching rape, torture, and genocide – with arms folded. We should not be surprised at evil, rather, we should respond. May our response not be one filled with wishful thinking, but with compassionate action.

As a society, I don’t know if we will ever cease from explaining evil by means of wishful thinking. All too often, people attempt to rationalize evil by using irrational methods. For instance, many intellectuals argue the genesis of the holocaust was due to Eve eating a piece of fruit and that hurricane Katrina was the fault of sexual immorality in New Orleans. We see shadows of this in the plague. Many people do not want to admit that the rats pose a serious health risk to human beings, so they resort to rationalizing the phenomenon. M. Michel states that pranksters planted the dead rats in the building where he works. Dr. Rieux’s asthma patient declares that hunger drove the rats out into the open to die. Both of these “rational” responses are actually completely irrational. Hunger does not explain the blood spurting from the rats’ muzzles. M. Michel’s explanation doesn’t explain why there are hundreds of death rats in buildings all over the city.

What’s the real cost of wishful thinking? The real cost, if not danger, I think, has to do with being out of touch with reality. It has to do with not having the mental discipline to see what’s really going on versus what one would like to happen. Wishful thinking is dangerous because it impairs our ability to properly see and understand reality. There is a reason why our senses generally give us accurate information about the world around us: without accurate information, we couldn’t hope to navigate our world with any expectation of safety or success. Dr. Rieux muses that his situation requires a certain “divorce from reality.” The beds in the emergency hospitals are full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. Pity has become useless, so he no longer indulges in it. We need to know what is going on around us if we are going to avoid danger or take advantage of opportunities.

Perhaps sometimes there are no rational reasons for instances of evil. Can you rest in the absurd?

The plague makes Rambert realize that he values love and happiness over his profession – that is, his means for making money. However, he is still preoccupied with his personal distress. Insisting that he doesn’t belong, he declares that there is a rational reason for his “right” to leave Oran. Nevertheless, he does not realize that there is nothing rational in his situation, just as there is nothing rational in the arrival of a plague epidemic in Oran. Shit happens, we make the most of our life, and then we die. Let us leave fairy tales and angry gods with the illiterate bronzed age peasants from whence they came … and pursue accepting the absurd.

If there is one thing that unites humanity, it is suffering. For Rambert, he desperately wants to escape the suffering in Oran and return to his love in Paris. The authorities state that they cannot set a “precedent” by letting Rambert leave. Dr. Rieux refuses to give him a certificate declaring him free of the plague. Rieux acknowledges that it is an absurd situation, but there is nothing to do but accept it. We must accept our plague. We must accept that babies will be born with disease, psychopaths will walk into school buildings and shoot whatever moves, and nations will engage in genocide. The plague lives on, and we are all participants in it. We touch the pain and admit that hearts will be broken and minds will be fucked. But within the chaos lies a great deal of joy and growth that leads to fulfillment. While we touch the pain, we never-the-less strive for fulfillment.

The slavish herd in Oran is quite pathetic. Only when they are imprisoned do the citizens of Oran realize the relative freedom they once enjoyed. Before, there was nothing restricting them except the force of their own habits. However, just as before the plague, they continue to be selfishly self-absorbed with their personal suffering. Each citizen believes his distress is somehow unique. They do not try to “find the right” words for their suffering because they are horrified to think that their listener pictures a common, mass-traded emotion. Partly, Oran’s people lack the imagination to communicate their suffering to other people; they were consistently “bored” before the epidemic.

Like Rieux, we must plow forward doing as much good and showing as much compassion as humanly possible. We do this by making the most of our time on this planet. In Oran, their narrow, circumscribed routines and their indifference prevent them from making the most of their finite existence – they are wasting their time. Tarrou’s concern about wasting time echoes Rieux’s own frustration with the Oran’s time wasting tactics in response to the swarm of rats and later with the rising epidemic. Tarrou is no different from any other human being. We were hurled onto this planet with no choice of our own, and now the choice is ours: Do you strive toward virtue or do we succumb to the plague? When honey touches your tongue … is it still sweet?

The central message to Rieux staying and fighting the plague was that he did what he had to do in order to be a human being. Being human is not about a celestial dictator in the sky sending down bronze aged commandments; it’s about an ultimate concern. An ultimate concern is humanly ubiquitous. It arises in all of us in the inner chambers of our being, in a moral center that you cannot abandon unless you abandon everything about your existence.

Towards the end The Plague, Camus allows the plague to pass. Perhaps this is Camus’s way of showing that pain and evil are cyclical, but never completely subside. Part of acknowledging the warp and woof of humanity is that we don’t live constantly in crises; we have moments of repose and gratification.

Many have wondered why Dietrich Bonheoffer left his professorship at Princeton to face an evitable death in fighting the resistance in Germany. Why did Jesus choose to go through Jerusalem knowing that it would prove fatal? Why does the Dali Lama turn a peaceful face toward the tyrants in China who subjugate his people? They engage in these brazen acts because it is their ultimate concern. They do what they have to do in order to be human. Bonheoffer pointed himself toward Germany because of his internal North Star. The Dali Lama points himself towards peace because of his moral compass. The plague is all around us, and the danger is when life becomes so routine, banal, and mundane that we become content with living in the kiddie pool. Therefore, the question is: will you take responsibility and pursue your ultimate concern?